Best Of 2010, Numbers 8 and 7

January 13, 2011 at 3:58 am (Uncategorized)

8. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding

Let’s get one thing outta the way right away: I would like very much to be Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan when I grow up. I mean dude has had himself one hell of a year–his label scores a number one with Arcade Fire, and then his band puts out their first album in nearly a decade and it ends up being damn near as good as anything they’ve ever done.

It seemed like Superchunk began this sort of odd slide to nowhere-land sometime around 1998 or so. Oh, Superchunk never got bad per se; they’re like pizza or sex that way. They just got…different. There were strings. Horns. There was Mac’s voice, actually singing instead of the youthful yelp of the “Precision Auto” days. Superchunk still knew how to write an anthemic riff…but they stopped writing them into memorable songs or melodies along the line somewhere. They edged into Dad Rock territory.

Majesty Shredding might well be Dad Rock too, but it’s the loudest and shreddiest example on the block. Making the smart realization that the attempt to evolve their sound over the last half of the 1990’s had rather the opposite effect of painting them into a creative corner, Superchunk comes roaring out of the gate here like it’s 1991 with “Digging For Something” and then doesn’t look back or forward.

The result is a glorious return to form. “Learned To Surf” has all the anthem you could ever want, with the kind of singalong chorus that put us all in the front of the stage back in the day. “My Gap Feels Weird” is every bit the declaration dogged independent belongingness that “My Noise” was 20 years ago, only this time the affirmation is all about still being relevant to an ethos even when the original audience are driving kids to soccer practice in minivans. And when the strings do come in, on the sprawling “Fractures In Plaster”, it would seem that Superchunk learned a little something about how to do that particular trick over the past nine years or so. “Plaster” is a midtempo rocker that builds to a magnificent chorus and driven by just the right splash of viola.

On Majesty Shredding’s penultimate number, Mac rhetorically asks “Are we back where we belong?” The answer is pretty definitive here. This record is the kings coming back to lay claim to a crown they never really abdicated.

“Winter Games”
“Learned To Surf”
“Fractures In Plaster”

7. Smith Westerns, S/T

One of the dirty little secrets of the 1990’s indie rock scene was that Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices never meant to start some sort of lo-fi revolution. For that matter, the band who played Rolling Stones to GbV’s Beatles, the legendary Grifters, never meant to either. In the case of both bands, they recorded lo-fi because that was either all they knew how to do, or all they could afford to do, or both…and when both bands were given real studio time with real producers, both groups abandoned lo-fi about as quickly as you can say “Bee Thousand.” Part of the charm of both bands was that they were clearly creating their own versions of mass-audience-friendly arena rock…but doing so in basements and flower shops because that was what they had to work with.

And so it is with The Smith Westerns, a band of youngsters hailing from Chicago (no one in the band is old enough to drink at the bars where they’re in-demand). They recorded their debut album in guitarist Max Kakacek’s basement, using two external mics and the built-in mic on a digital recorder, and it sure sounds like it. If you listen only to the guitars, the sound can be a bit monochromatic at times…but then they do something interesting with the guitars, or you can hear a glockenspiel plinging away in the background or some Beach Boys-ish piano and you forget that the sound is a bit muddy.

What’s going on here? Apparently SW founders Cullen Omori and Kakacek became fascinated with ’60’s garage rock and decided to start a band based mostly off a belief of “how hard can this be?” In the span of a year they managed to get their own playing sorted out, and also managed an almost gleeful appropriation of a variety of influences that just wouldn’t seem to work well together. As a result, the Smith Westerns can sound punk at times, while at other times sugar-sweet; metal, glam-rock, post-punk…every style seems to play a visit here, even if none of those genres dominates the other.

Delightfully then, these guys have basically decided to gleefully discard notions of what should and shouldn’t work. As a result, a song like the opening “Dreams” sounds like some rare 1979 Tall Dwarfs record unearthed from Chris Knox’s closet. “Gimme Some Time” has all the “Oh-oh’s” to make it a Ramones-y classic, except they turn it inside out on itself and make it so immediately hummable that you can’t help but think of early Undertones instead. When the chorus kicks in on “My Heart”, it’s as if The Sweet decided to go postpunk.

This is a band to watch. They’ve got their second album due out in a week, and this time they’ve recorded it in a real studio with real production and things are all hi-fi and that disc sounds every bit like a contender to be on this list in 2011. For now though, there’s nothing wrong at all with the unfettered joy of this monstrous debut album.

“Dreams”
“Gimme Some Time”
“Girl In Love”

Oh, and here’s where these guys are headed in 2011! (Let this be my first pimpage for Great Music, 2011…)

“Weekend”

3 Comments

  1. rhoops said,

    super cool you picked these guys, I love this record but it came out on hozac in ’09. . . are you using the fat possum reissue as a 2010 list loophole?? ; )

    • Chris said,

      You damn right I did! I didn’t hear it until the Fat Possum re-ish, and then saw that it had been released fairly locally in 2009. I call shenanigans on Hozac.

  2. rhoops said,

    Shenanigans? It’s tough being a small label. I’m sure they got the LP out as best they could. I don’t know the details but I’d blame Fat Possum for snatching a great band from a great label. . . although I’m sure FP was able to offer the band more. Wavves has really helped that label take a big step up.

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